For two months, a rebel group of Israeli Black Hawk helicopter and F-16 fighter pilots has been denounced as traitors for saying they will no longer bomb Palestinian cities.
Until now they have maintained a resolute silence on their motives, preferring to limit their criticism of Ariel Sharon’s war to a letter signed by 27 reserve and active duty pilots refusing to carry out what they described as illegal orders, and denouncing the occupation as eating at the moral fabric of Israel.
Now, having been thrown out of the air force, they are talking publicly about what brought members of the most revered branch of the Israeli military to make an unprecedented challenge to the handling of the conflict with the Palestinians.
“I served more than seven years as a pilot,” said Captain Alon R, who, like all the younger pilots, hopes to return to combat flying and so declines to use his full name in order to retain his security clearance. “In the beginning, we were pilots who believed our country would do all it could to achieve peace. We believed in the purity of our arms and that we did all we could to prevent unnecessary loss of life.
“Somewhere in the last few years it became harder and harder to believe that is the case.”
The line was crossed for most of the pilots with the dropping of the one-tonne bomb last year on the home of a Hamas military leader, Salah Shehade, killing him and 14 of his family, mostly children.
One captain described the bombing as deliberate killing, murder even. Another called it state terrorism, though some colleagues swiftly stomped on that interpretation. But they all agreed that the attack sowed the doubts that resulted a year later in the letter that sent shockwaves through the Israeli military.
“The Shehade incident was a red light for us, a final warning,” said Capt Alon R. “With Shehade I began to re-evaluate my beliefs. We killed 14 innocent people, nine of them children. After my commander gave an interview in which he said he sleeps well at night and his men can do the same. Well, I can’t. We refused to see it as an innocent mistake.”
Capt Assaf L, who served as a pilot for 15 years until sacked for signing the letter, had similar doubts.
“You don’t have to be a genius to know that the destruction from a one-tonne bomb is massive, so someone up there made a decision to drop it knowing it would destroy buildings,” he said. “Someone took the decision to kill innocent people. This is us being terrorists. This is vengeance.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Avner Raanan is among the most respected pilots to have signed the letter. He served for 27 years and was awarded one of Israel’s highest military decorations in 1994. “If you look at the past three years, you see that, if we had a suicide bombing, the Israeli air force made a big operation in which civilians were killed, and that looks to innocent eyes like revenge,” he said.
“You hear it in the streets of Israel; people want revenge. But we should not behave like that. We are not a mafia.”
More than 30 pilots have now endorsed the letter refusing to fly bombing raids on Palestinian cities, although four retracted, one an El Al pilot threatened with dismissal, and another a reserve pilot who lost his civilian job.
At its core, the letter questions the legality of the “targeted assassinations” that have claimed the lives of more civilian bystanders than their Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade targets. In October, 14 civilians were killed when the air force fired missiles at a car in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp.
“Is it legitimate to take F-15’s and helicopters designed to destroy enemy tanks, and use them against cars and houses in one of the most heavily populated places in the world?” Capt Alon R asked.
“Because of the terrorism, we have become blinded by the blood on our own faces. We cannot see that on the other side, beside the terrorists, is a whole nation of innocent people. It’s important that we recognise that, and that, as military people, we say that.”
The pilots’ stand shook Israeli society. There is no shortage of critics of the prime minister’s militarist tactics but those of the peace camp are widely viewed as pacifists and marginal. Doubts raised by the army chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, and four former heads of the Shin Bet intelligence service alarmed many Israelis, but the criticisms were focused solely on whether Mr Sharon’s tactics were fuelling terrorism.
The pilots straddle both issues, raising moral and legal questions on the conduct of the war and challenging the government’s claim its strategy is about defending Israel.
“Our government’s policy is to maintain fear in the public,” Capt Assaf L said. “We’re not weak. It’s not 1967 or 1973, with the Syrian army on the border waiting to attack us. This is maintaining a war to maintain the occupation.
“We’ve the strongest nation in the Middle East. The terrorists are bastards, but we must fight to not become terrorists ourselves.”
Many who poured scorn on the pilots accused them of wading into politics for going beyond questions about the legality of their orders and challenging the occupation. “We cannot separate the two,” Capt Jonathon S said. “We are not pacifists. We don’t think we should sit back and let suicide bombers attack us. But all this is a direct result of our being in the [occupied] territories.
“Our fight to keep the settlements and suppress the Palestinian people is killing us. It is killing our right to live safely in the country of Israel. A very small group of radical Israelis is leading the sane majority to catastrophe.”
Col Raanan scoffs at the accusation that the pilots have denigrated their uniforms by wading into political issues.
“The air force commander spoke in favour of the [Jewish] settlements while sitting in uniform next to Sharon at a Likud party convention,” he said. “That is political. This country has a defence minister who, as army chief of staff, was the most political ever. It is hypocritical to say lower ranking officers cannot express an opinion. What they mean is, we can be political so long as we agree with the government. Well that’s not democracy.”
The pilots say they have received more than 500 letters of support, including one from a Holocaust survivor, and numerous calls from fellow pilots. Several leftwing former cabinet ministers praised the pilots’ stand, saying it proved the armed forces were moral.
Concern in the air force prompted its commander, Major-General Dan Halutz, to meet groups of pilots to tell them that “targeted assassinations” were not a war crime.
“Halutz said we were traitors,” Capt Assaf L said. “In our eyes, what we did is a very Zionist act. We did it to save Israel.”
* Colin Powell said yesterday he had the right to talk to anyone with ideas for peace, dismissing Israeli criticism that it would be a mistake for him to meet the authors of the unofficial Geneva accord. “I am the American secretary of state. I have an obligation to listen to individuals who have interesting ideas,” he said.
Although he did not say he would meet the accord’s Israeli and Palestinian authors, US officials have said such a gathering could take place this week in Washington.
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003